ACCORDING to the Sunday Times at the weekend, the Duchess of Sussex has joined the campaign to ‘decolonise’ university curricula. It reports that she wishes to ‘confront the legacy of empire and racism on university campuses’. As patron of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), she has a legitimate interest in the issue. I wonder, though, if she is sufficiently knowledgeable about the debate into which she has entered. On a recent visit to City University in London, her ‘Oh my God’ reaction to discovering a paucity of black and female professors in British universities suggests she is not.
Widespread media reports suggest that it is her husband’s opinion, but not the Queen’s, that ‘what Meghan wants, she gets’. Given the toxicity of the decolonisation row, some lively altercations may lie ahead.
The Sunday Times has intimated that the ‘duchess is urging students to question “antiquated” teaching and to push for more diversity among staff’. Should the duchess see her role as ‘agent provocateur’ for social and educational change? Policies of positive discrimination are an exceedingly contentious and divisive form of social engineering. Many of us consider that successful and harmonious societies are more readily built on merit than on discrimination. Within reason, the most suitable person for a role, regardless of race, gender or social background, has been most people’s guiding principle of fairness and common sense.
The under-representation of women and of blacks amongst university professors is a matter about which the duchess has every right to be legitimately concerned and to question. She should be equally concerned, following this assumption, that working-class white boys are bottom of the pile when it comes to academic attainment, including entry to university. Most significantly, perhaps, with the startling fact that in more than half of our universities the intake of white working-class males is under five per cent of the total.
The way forward for ‘under-representation’ amongst certain groups at the level of both professorship and undergraduate is, surely, to raise the quality and the number of the applicants. We should never accept unfair discrimination against any group. Equally, though, it is counter-productive to discount ability in order to positively discriminate in favour of arbitrarily selected groups whose ‘availability’ or ‘competitiveness’ may reflect different aspirations and choices as well as lack of early opportunity. Do we really want to have second-best professors in our universities teaching undergraduates who cannot cope?
The Sunday Times recorded the duchess commenting that we need to: ‘Just open up that conversation so we are talking about it as opposed to continuing with that daily rote . . . sometimes that approach can be really antiquated and needs an update . . .’
The danger of such thinking, however, is that it leads to universities becoming vehicles for undermining the identity and knowledge-foundation of western civilisation, rather than safeguarding it. This is the stuff of social revolution! An ‘update’ of the curriculum, for example, can mean that degree courses in English Literature do not even require the studying of Shakespeare.
Updating also means that history syllabi provide little more than an opportunity for self-flagellation as atonement for the sins of our fathers. Racist imperialists such as Jamaican ‘nurse’ Mary Seacole will survive, but only because she has the double virtue of being female and regarded as ‘black’ (she wasn’t). Her inclination to deploy the n-word for blacks and her description of the Turks as ‘degenerate Arabs . . . worse than fleas’ are filtered out.
In her position as patron of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, the duchess needs to understand that the organisation is powerful testimony to the affection in which ex-colonies hold their former imperial masters. Such was the strength of that bond that many hundreds of thousands volunteered to fight in defence of that empire in two world wars and, indeed, in other wars. The British Empire was extraordinary and, for all its terrible sins, probably the greatest achievement of any nation in history and the greatest force for good.
The history of humanity is, to a considerable extent, the story of empires and subjects. Around the world, subjection to imperial rule was unavoidable for so many for so long. Given this inevitability, it was surely the British Empire that most subjected people would wish to live under. Why? If the Duchess of Sussex were to answer that question in her next speech, she would win a billion hearts and really help the causes that are so close to her own heart.